This experience can have a long-lasting impact
What was once thought of as a “normal” part of childhood – being picked on or bullied at some point during your elementary school or high school years – is no longer considered a part of growing up. As more research is conducted on the implications of bullying, it’s becoming clearer that those who were bullied as children are at risk for poorer outcomes regarding their psychological and physical health and quality of life as adults.
“Bullying is not a rite of passage. It is not something that builds character, and it is not something that should be dealt with alone,” says Dr. Laura Chang, a psychiatrist at Advocate Children’s Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill.
Bullying comes in many forms – physical, emotional, sexual or cyberbullying – and Dr. Chang says all forms can be traumatic. Verbal and social bullying, which includes actions like teasing, spreading rumors, leaving someone out or name calling, are very common. Bullying can also turn physical when kids are pushed, shoved, hit or kicked. Bullying can go on for months or years at a time, causing repeated distress for the victim.
“I’ve found childhood bullying to have long-reaching effects due to its pervasive nature. The power differential inherent to bullying places a child in a near constant state of distress, present both when the child engages with the bully, but also when the child is away from their bully,” says Dr. Chang. “Anticipation of interactions with a bully often leads to avoidant behavior and subsequent deterioration in functioning. This avoidance has long-lasting effects.”
Dr. Chang says being bullied can lead to low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, insomnia, withdrawal from social situations, school avoidance or refusal, self-injurious behaviors and attempting or committing suicide and that these behaviors can last well into adulthood.
A study conducted in 2014 at King’s College in London showed that childhood bullying had negative social, physical and mental health effects on those bullied up to 40 years later.
Although pervasive bullying can leave a lasting mark on a child’s life, knowing the warning signs of bullying and intervening early can lessen its impact.
“Bullying has severe, long-reaching consequences, but so does early intervention,” says Dr. Chang. “Recognizing, validating and supporting a child who is the victim of bullying can truly change the course of his or her life.”
Signs that a child is being bullied include sudden changes in behavior, truancy, complaint of physical symptoms without a clear underlying cause, increasingly isolative behavior, decreased interest in previously enjoyed activities, disruption in sleep, changes in social media use or a decline in school performance.
If you have been bullied in the past, or if you suspect your child is being bullied, Dr. Chang recommends talking about the experience with loved ones or a mental health care provider.
“Frequently, children are afraid to disclose bullying and feel it is a problem they should handle themselves,” says Dr. Chang. “However, successful management of bullying typically includes involvement of peers, school administration/teachers, parents and, at times, even police, is necessary.”
It’s important to take the long-term effects of bullying seriously. Dr. Chang says the first step in being able to process past events and move forward is to recognize that that the bullying was a traumatic experience. The next step is getting the help and support victims of bullying need.
“Reach out for help, because no one deserves to live their life in fear,” says Dr. Chang.
About the Author
Colette A. Harris, health enews contributor, is the public affairs and marketing coordinator at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Il. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism and has nearly a decade of experience writing about health and wellness, which are her passions. When she’s not writing, you can find her practicing yoga, cooking, reading, or traveling.